The Words Behind the Goal: What Does Sustainable Development Goal 4 Mean in Practice?

29/09/2015 14:50 BST | Updated 28/09/2016 10:12 BST

It's 15 years since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed which sought to 'spare no effort' in eradicating global poverty and inequality. Over this last weekend, leaders once again come together to assess the progress made by the MDGs and to redefine their focus for the next 15 years of the fight against poverty.

For Book Aid International, the UK's leading library development charity in sub-Saharan Africa, our main focus on the goals is around education and access to information. Millennium Development Goal 2 focused on the need for the provision of primary school education and although not yet universal, the progress has been impressive. To have gone from 52% of children in sub-Saharan African enrolled in school in 1990 to 80% today is a huge leap and the benefits of the efforts made will be felt for generations to come.

As ever, there is more work to be done and we welcome in particular Strategic Development Goal (SDG) 4, which promises "inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all." This resonates strongly with our belief that everyone should have the opportunity to further themselves and shape their own futures through access to reading and information.

For me, the key word in goal 4 is 'quality.' The value of a quality education cannot be overstated and this is where the real challenge lies for many of the schools we work with in Africa. Although huge efforts are being made to accommodate more children in school, this inevitably leads to there being more children in the classroom, a higher pupil to teacher ratio and the further stretching of resources such as books. We're proud to have been supporting school libraries for decades and last year we sent 640,000 children and primary level books, as well as 136,000 books for secondary schools. Next year we intend to launch a new project which will see over 300 African schools benefiting from book box libraries over the next four years. The books we send mean that children can share copies one between two instead of one between ten; they mean that teachers can run more engaging literacy lessons and they mean that children learn to develop a love of reading with vibrant, appealing and fun books to read.

Whilst great progress has been made in the provision of primary education in sub-Saharan Africa, it is still not universal and drop-out rates remain worryingly high because of the demands on families to make ends meet. The current generation of children may well have better educational prospects than their predecessors, but we know that there are currently 48 million young people (15-24) in sub-Saharan African who are functionally illiterate.

This makes it hugely important that people have opportunities to learn later in life, or in situations other than the traditional classroom. Every year, we send up to one million brand new books to libraries in Africa. These books reach libraries in schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, cities, slums, villages and refugee camps. What motivates us to do this is our belief in the importance of opportunities to learn, regardless of location or age, so we are particularly pleased to see the mention of lifelong learning included in SDG 4.

As well as educational opportunities being available throughout life, we must also remember the word 'inclusive' in SDG 4. Children and adults approach reading and learning differently and it's important to seek ways of accommodating different needs. Last year, we piloted a digital project in three libraries in Kenya to assess how technology could help more children to discover a love of reading. Librarians reported an increase in user numbers and in engagement, and reported that the tablets and e-readers allowed children with special needs to engage with reading more easily. Encouraged by this, and with the support of players of People's Postcode Lottery, Book Aid International has just launched a partnership project with Worldreader called Digital Futures: Uganda, which provides e-readers, pre-loaded with educational content for 10 children's libraries.

We are delighted that the international community is taking the goal of education and lifelong learning seriously, but we must not underestimate the scale of the job. If SDG 4 is to be realised in 15 years, there needs to be a concerted and joined-up effort to bring opportunities to learn both inside and outside the classroom to all areas and in all situations.